Spotlight Isn’t a Thriller. But It Gets the Facts Right
For all its quality, the first 30 minutes of Spotlight—director Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church covering up sexual abuse—is a lot like real journalism. Meetings, phone calls, legwork. Then, in one shot, everything comes into focus.
The four journalists that constitute the paper’s titular long-form investigative unit—editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—huddle around a telephone, listening to the voice of former Benedictine monk and mental health researcher. The team has been working under the assumption that they’re simply confirming a list of 20 or so priests who have abused children in the Boston Archdiocese. But the researcher, Richard Sipe, introduces the idea that there’s enough abuse to hypothesize a “recognizable psychiatric phenomenon” within the subculture of Catholic priests, and they should be looking for a significantly higher number of possible abusers.
Slowly, the camera begins to draw back, revealing more and more of the cramped office within the massive headquarters of the Boston Globe. More importantly, though, the shot effectively shrinks the reporters as they grasp the true scope of their story. The interview has turned their world upside down, and suddenly they’re dwarfed by the very thing they’ve begun to uncover.
The subtle, methodical tracking shot has a simplicity that belies the scene’s emotional complexity, but it also crystallizes the movie’s greatest strength. While Spotlight has been compared to other investigative-journalism films like All The President’s Men and Zodiac, it’s far more demure in its presentation. “It was our challenge to transport the audience back to a time when we had no sense of just how grand the scale of the abuse was,” says McCarthy. “We never wanted to feel like we were visually manipulating the audience in a slick way when it didn’t feel authentic to the world of what is a really blue collar industry.” Spotlight is the platonic ideal of a film about journalism: it peels back the layers of a real-life mystery with straightforward, unobtrusive storytelling.
Show, Don’t Tell
Comparisons to All The President’s Men and Zodiac aren’t a surprise: like them, Spotlight takes place against a backdrop of real-life journalism. But McCarthy’s film takes a dramatically different stylistic approach to representing its story.
All The President’s Men was shot by legendary cinematographer Gordon “Prince Of Darkness” Willis, whose filmography includes The Godfather and Annie Hall. The film’s most famous scene sees Bob Woodward meeting with confidential source Deep Throat, half of whose face is barely lit throughout their entire conversation. As current as the movie was—a 1976 film based on a 1974 book, in turn based on reporting done in 1972-73—the Deep Throat scene makes it more than just a story about two dogged reporters picking at a story. “It’s a paranoid thriller,” says McCarthy. “We weren’t really telling that story, we were telling something more of a drama that had thrilling aspects.”
Then there’s Zodiac. As conceived by an exacting perfectionist director like David Fincher (teaming back up with The Game cinematographer Harris Savides), it’s an oppressively dark film—as much about societal safety and the burden of proof as it is with San Francisco Chronicle reporters tracking the Zodiac Killer. It’s brilliant and fearful in much the same way as Men, but again it sacrifices procedural elements to focus more on sheer terror.
Spotlight doesn’t have the heart-racing moment where a reporter stands in a room with a potential murder suspect, or where someone hands over information in a darkened parking garage. The most blatantly symbolic the film gets is its wide shots, which capture the density of church spires all over Boston to reinforce the city’s Catholic backbone (as well as the idea that the Globe taking on the church was seen by many as treasonous). McCarthy cites the “efficient, economical” influence of Sidney Lumet, director of Network and 12 Angry Men. “[Lumet] was emotionally clear,” he says. “He didn’t get too tricky with the camera, but he was very good at telling the story.”
The one other visual flourish of Spotlight occurs right around the midpoint of the film. One of the reporters sits at home, scanning through an Archdiocese Directory for locations where potential abusive priests have been transferred to avoid further scrutiny. It’s a thankless, brute-force task, but it pays off when an address catches his eye. The reporter bursts out of his front door and walks for just over a block—the camera on him all the way—until he finds a church-owned house for elderly priests. The hidden child abusers aren’t just everywhere, the movie is saying, they’re anywhere. “My cinematographer (Masanobu Takayanagi) kept saying, ‘This is harder, this is harder.’ It’s easier to be showy,” says McCarthy. ”But we felt like that wasn’t the world. We do a lot of oners in this movie, where we stand back and just let them play out a scene, because I had the actors to do that and the material is compelling.”
Stick To The Facts
Spotlight only briefly hints at the larger ideas connecting this specific instance of uncovering institutional corruption 14 years ago to current events. It’s not trying to overplay its (incredibly compelling) narrative hand. Instead of pitching toward a specific message, the film is focused on delivering a story as close to the actual reporting as possible.
Several of this year’s historical films have been criticized for excluding true lead characters or using composite stand-ins for actual people, Stonewall and Suffragette chief among them. For McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer, however, verisimilitude was paramount; they stuck to the members of the real Spotlight team. The Globe published essays from the actual Spotlight team recounting how each of the main actors prepared to portray them, and becoming increasingly amazed at their attention to detail (Rachel McAdams asked Sacha Pfeiffer how long she kept her fingernails at the time and what size Post-its she favored).
That faithfulness comes into play most notably when the movie’s timeline reaches September 11, 2001. The 9/11 attacks interrupted Spotlight’s reporting and delayed the stories’ publication for months (and the film includes that gap), but what could be a momentum killer instead reinforces the film’s commitment. Instead, the reporters spend that time reporting—obtaining buried evidence and tracking down sources. There’s no last-minute confession, no eleventh-hour discovery; there’s just the slow accretion of evidence until the article is finally ready to print. “Some people were saying maybe we don’t need it [in the film],” says McCarthy about acknowledging the attacks and their impact on the process. “But we’re telling a story about factual accuracy. It’s 9/11, I think we need it.”
On the continuum of “journalism movies,” Spotlight belongs somewhere between Ron Howard’s day-in-the-life depiction of a newsroom The Paper and stylish masterworks like Zodiac. It captures the boots-on-the-ground grind of investigative reporting while delivering the step-by-step satisfaction of a true-crime mystery. That was no accident; McCarthy and Singer reportedly spent hours with the real Spotlight team asking them to recall the circumstances of reporting. And that, behind the masterful ensemble performances, nearly invisible editing, and subtle camerawork, reveals the foundational strength of the film. In order to produce an accurate, clear-eyed portrayal of true reporting, they began by reporting the backstory themselves.
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